In the interest of full disclosure I feel I should preface this review with two facts. First, I’ve always hated shows in San Jose, CA. More often than not, kids from San Jose would rather drive to San Francisco for a show than see the same show in San Jose. Those that do attend often seem to have arrived for the wrong show and stand cross-armed and apathetic the entire time. Second, I have never been a fan of the “larger band intentionally playing a smaller venue” routine. It seems a strange phenomenon that I just can’t wrap my head around and it seems to happen in the Bay Area with pretty regular frequency. Whether it’s Green Day at Bottom of the Hill (a venue with a 260-person capacity), Foo Fighters at Slim’s (600-person capacity) or NOFX at Annie’s Social Club, it seems some band is always trying to play to an overly crowded room, for reasons I don’t understand. Maybe it’s intended to be something special for select fans, a way to try out new material to a small audience or some vain attempt to reconnect with your roots, but the purpose of these shows has always seemed lost on me. That said, my excitement was noticeably tempered when I heard Against Me! would be playing a small art space, The Works, in San Jose. Still, in the interest of journalism (and a lack of excuses due to proximity), I decided I had to at least check out the spectacle.
Swinging by the venue early on my way to dinner, I noticed a line had already formed outside. Kids not in line were aimlessly wandering downtown San Jose looking for somewhere to purchase canned food (as you received $2 entrance cost with said can of food). After stepping inside I noticed the art space had been transformed for the occasion. All art was stripped off the walls (and presumably stashed somewhere safe), there was a small stage in the corner (something never seen before), and there was even a sound system manned by Asian Man Records' very own multitalented Skylar. The whole thing was quite different than any other show I've seen there. The only thing that looked recognizable was the opener, San Jose locals Hard Girls. It was clear the trio had brought some friends/fans along as a small group of people near the front of the stage danced and sung along to every song and even chanted requests for the band's fan favorite, “Beach Party.” Though the group has two singers (Mike and Morgan), the set seemed Morgan heavy, with Mike only singing a couple of the songs he has lead vocals on. Regardless, they put on a strong set and showed why they’re quickly becoming a more than just a local favorite.
Out of necessity (1 bathroom to 300-plus kids) and a love of irony, I stepped out to use a McDonald’s restroom between sets. When I returned, Roll the Tanks were already playing. I’m willing to admit I listened to their full-length, Suffer City, once or twice and found nothing outstanding about it. However, in a live setting the boys were putting on quite a show. They danced, sweated and hollered their way through a set that was energetic enough to get the normally stagnant San Jose crowd moving. The live setting gave the band a much more Clash-style sound than I recalled from the album and ultimately seemed like a better medium for them than a recorded album.
O Pioneers!!! had the double-edged duty of being the final opener. It was great, because by this time the venue was packed with people (the doors were closed and in-and-outs were no longer allowed) and everyone is geared up for Against Me!; those most excited for them have already worked their way to the front of the stage, where they wait impatiently, like cross-armed sentinels until Against Me! comes on. This was only the second time I had seen O Pioneers!!! as a four-piece and, for a band that had functioned as a duet for so long, the additional instrumentation did not go to waste. The band sounded bigger and tighter than ever before and it paid off in big measure on all their songs, including their cover of Piebald’s “American Hearts.” Still, much of the front of the crowd was unmoving and packed so tightly that even those of us who wanted to get close were blocked out. This was probably the most frustrating (and typically San Jose) portion of the show, in no part due to O Pioneers!!! performance.
After the switchover, and some audience chanting, the long-awaited Against Me! came out to the first art space I've seen them play since the release of As the Eternal Cowboy. The band opened by tearing into “White People for Peace” and the crowd responded by breaking into a huge circle pit (oh yeah, that sentence just happened). I was interested and unsure what to expect. I hadn't seen the band in nearly three years and had seen various live footage since then of Tom ranting and various members walking off stage. However, tonight the band was playing like they had five years prior, jumping quickly from song to song, with little-to-no talking in between. On occasion, the band seemed to milk the audience with extended openings for crowd favorites (such as “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” or “Miami”), but no one in the audience seemed to mind and the band looked like they were having a blast, so no harm, no foul. Against Me! culled quite a bit from their extensive catalog, playing tracks from Crime as Forgiven By up through New Wave and even included three songs from their upcoming album. And, despite the fact that a good portion of the audience weren't into Against Me! when their older albums came out, they sang along to songs like “Walking Is Still Honest” as if they had been singing and dancing along to them for years.
As a whole, the energy from the band was amazing and reciprocated by the art space full of sweaty kids so young they made me feel downright middle-aged. I’m still not sure if I fully understand the point of the intentionally small show, but at least this occasion was fully enjoyed by both the bands and fans, even if it left the art space smelling like dead ass.